a regular feature at The Spin Off … Friday is Poetry Day!
Ashleigh’s poem here
a regular feature at The Spin Off … Friday is Poetry Day!
Ashleigh’s poem here
Jennifer Compton, Mr Clean & The Junkie Mākaro Press, 2015
Jennifer Compton’s new poetry collection, Mr Clean & The Junkie, is a fabulous read – the kind of book you devour in one gulp. It is a long narrative poem in four parts with a coda. Each section is written in couplets – shortish lines that deliver the perfect rhythm for the occasion. This is a 1970s love story set in Sydney (and briefly NZ), yet it is a love story with a difference. It reminded me a bit of Pirandello’s play Six Characters in Search of an Author, in that the stitching is on show — how you tell/show the story, along with the choices you make, is as much a part of the narrative as plot, characters and so. The difference here, though, it is like a poem in search of a character in search of a film director in search of character in search of a poem. Self-reflexive behaviour on the part of authors has been done to death in recent decades, so it has the potential to appear lack lustre. Not in this case. I loved the way the poetry is a series of smudges. A bit like the way life imitates cinema as much as cinema imitates life.
I spent ages on the first page. It got thoughts rolling. I loved the voice. I loved the intrusion of the director (we figure that out as we read) and I loved the way I kept putting the poem in the role of the camera (long shots to gain wider perspective or distance, tracking shots, surprising angles, refreshing views) or the editing suites with jump cuts and smooth transitions. Or sitting back and admiring the composition within the frame. Or tropes. The slow reveal.
The two main characters (My Clean and The Junkie) are definitely in search of flesh and blood, yet you can also see this as genre writing – a narrative poem that is part thriller, part whodunit, part crime writing. Then again it is part feminist critique and part postmodern explosion.
Here is a sample from the first page:
Our hero is discovered sleeping.
We find him as the camera finds him.
Our hero is dreaming of the white mouse
cleaning his whiskers in extreme close-up.
As he dreams we snoop about his habitat.
Everything is there for a reason and we will
see it from another angle before we reach The End.
I imagine ambient sound during the credit sequence.
The mouse begins to run the wheel because
the wheel is there under his paws.
The slow zoom out reveals the wheel is in a cage,
And fade to the floor-to-ceiling, slatted blinds,
looming over our man asleep on his futon.
What do they look like? Bars.
The writing is tight. The plot pulls you along at break-neck pace and then stops you in your tracks as the director’s voice pulls you out of plot and character with wry stumbling blocks. Little flurries of sidetracks. Or how to proceed? The central idea’s beguiling (poem version of a film version of a love story), the dry humour infectious (after a curtain is pulled back to reveal a spectacular view of Sydney’s Harbour Bridge and Opera House: ‘If you’ve got it/ flaunt it.’). But there is poetry at work here. It is there in the cadence of each line, the end word and the rhythm. It is there in the use of tropes that arch across the length of the book in little delicious echoes. The caged mouse on the wheel stands in for the symbolic cage of the hero (his father’s expectations and life choices). Most of all, however, the poetry sparks and flicks in the white space; the bits that are left on the editor’s floor or the angles that the director chooses not to show. Things are hinted at. Significant events that give flesh to character are caught within a line or two. That white space, that economy, is what gives this long poem its magnetic pull.
The collection is released as part of Mākaro Press’s 2015 Hoopla series. The beautifully designed books share design features and size, and include a new poet, mid-career poet and late-career poet. The other poets this year are: Carolyn McCurdie (Bones in the Octagon) and Bryan Walpert (Native bird). Jennifer is an award-winning poet and playwright who has lived in Australia since the 1970s. She has won both The Kathleen Grattan Award for Poetry (This City, Otago University Press, 2011) and The Katherine Mansfield Award.
Reading Mr Clean and The Junkie is entertaining, diverting, challenging, laughter inducing. How wonderful that a poetry collection can do all of this. I loved it!
When my father made love to my mother
and their salts and foams seethed and lifted
so that a child washed up on their tides,
perhaps they held each other
in an old rotting villa with cracks and gaps
that let the rooms’ winter breath
unravel along the street
like spider silk adrift on the air.
Perhaps outside that house
an untrimmed, straggling macrocarpa
tossed in the wind like a woman in fever sheets
and the clouded sky came close and tight
as a fist screwing a lid on a jar
while nearby the city’s river cried deep in its bed,
birds circled but found they couldn’t alight;
as a chill hide of questions
grew a stubborn lichen
across the corroding, rented roof.
For there are days when the human heart
feels like spit rubbed in mud,
the mind a junk room
of broom handles and wheel-less prams,
must-stink chair nobody will sit in,
little black fly heads
sprinkled in a corner web,
ear bones of vanished mice,
single bits of faded jigsaws,
carpet littered with broken envelopes
and even when love creeps close
over the slanting floorboards,
sorrow drifts in with the smell of snow
clustered on its skin.
© Emma Neale
Originally printed in Landfall; appears also in Tender Machines (Otago University Press, 2015).
Author bio: Emma Neale works as an editor. On alternate years, she runs a one-semester poetry workshop at the University of Otago. She has published five novels and five collections of poetry, the most recent of which is Tender Machines (Dunedin: OUP, 2015).
Note from Paula: Usually in my Friday poem slot I have invited poets to write a note about their poem and I have added my own thoughts. Some poets are happy to provide sideways anecdotes or points of origin for their poems; others prefer to let the poems speak for themselves. I have no dogmatic stance on either option. Notes on poems can be utterly fascinating and provide unexpected roads into your reading. I don’t think they ever shut a poem down — as readers, when we press a poem’s start button, anything can happen. So I have decided to make the ‘note’ aspect of my Poem-Friday feature flexible – taken up on a case by case basis.
This poem stalled me. It is the sort of poem I love to write about because it engages every part of my body — my eye, my ear, my heart and my mind. A poetry coup. Yet I wanted the poem to stand in its off-white space on the screen – shimmering, flickering on a cerebral and aural scale. Without my commentary. Intruding static. Yet I can’t help myself. Just a tad. I adore the loving craft of each line, the words and word connections that catch you by surprise, the surprise upheld like an internal beat, the way physical detail judders and then sets you off on memory tangents. At the core, heart.
This poem is the first poem in the book. Read it, and then you can’t wait to devour the poems that follow. Within the next weeks I will post a review.
Today I am clearing my study ready to start writing a book on New Zealand women’s poetry. I am working my way through deadlines (almost done). I have finished my astonishing visit as Writer in Residence at Fairburn School in South Auckland. Still so many books to review and share here. Interviews to do. Friday poems to kick start again.
Thanks to Chris Else, I have borrowed his collections of Landfall, Sport and Takahe before they moves on to a good home. Five wine boxes full — what discoveries will I make within their pages? It is so very exciting and so very helpful when I am not attached to a university. I am full of gratitude.
Then today the most lovely surprise package from Laurence Fearnley who had discovered a collection of poetry books in a second-hand bookshop in Dunedin. I have neither of these books, beautiful much-loved editions that I will treasure. I got goosebumps as I held them. Again I am full of gratitude.
It makes me feel I am part of a very supportive writing community.
I face this project that I am about to start on Monday (full strength) with a mix of nerves, terror, pleasure, doubt, excitement — the way once you start reading and writing anything can happen as you traverse the unexpected, the unfamiliar, the wayward and the illuminating.
I can’t wait.
I loved having this conversation!
Paula Green’s NZ Poetry Shelf is a blog I pop in on regularly. Green claims that she only writes about poetry that she enjoys, which makes her reviews a breathe-easy and pleasurable read. She reliably sniffs out great local poetry, so my interest was roused when she announced that both session guests, Kerry Hines (right) and Leilani Tamu (below), had been subjects for her blog. Hines and Tamu are very different writers. But Green expressed that both drew uncannily similar responses in her reviews. As if to echo the uncanny, when asked to read from their collections, each chose poems with a titular ‘beach’. In both cases, the poems were atmospheric, and anchored to place.
Concept of place features heavily in both writers’ work. It is discussed that place can be temporal as well as spatial, and that place is often about people, politics, and the memories people have of…
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LOUNGE #46 Wednesday 23 September
Old Government House Lounge, UoA City Campus, Princes St and Waterloo Quadrant, 5.30-7 pm
Featuring work in progress by the Masters of Creative Writing class of 2015:
Free entry. Food and drinks for sale in the Buttery. Information Michele Leggott firstname.lastname@example.org or 09 373 7599 ext. 87342. Poster: http://www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz/events/lounge46_poster.pdf
The LOUNGE readings are a continuing project of the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre (nzepc), Auckland University Press and Auckland University English, Drama and Writing Studies, in association with the Staff Common Room Club at Old Government House.
LOUNGE READINGS #45-47: 12 August, 23 September, 21 October 2015
Great to see a packed hall ( a refurbished hall no less) that was a celebration of books and writers but also a celebration of Murray Gray and Naomi McCleary. They say this might be their last year of involvement. But let’s see. I salute them too whole heartedly!
After the powhiri, Glenn read from Alistair Te Ariki Campbell’s Gallipoli poem which was breathtaking to kick start the night.
Harry Ricketts read a poetry medley and I am sure will have hooked a few poets on the triolet form. So good read aloud. Delicious. In ten minutes he managed to make us laugh as much as ooh and aah and gasp. Great reading.
Glenn then introduced his song poem which was extraordinary (I loved the fascinating back story but would have loved it shortened a tad to fit another song poem in) . It came out of being at the Derek Challis session a few years back and discovering Robin Hyde’s (Derek’s mother) poetry and story. So the poem song was to and for and of Robin. I could hear her poetry in it. The whole thing was a mix of a sea shanty come skipping song come folk song come poem. Glenn sang it unaccompanied and I adored it. Want to hear them all.
In between the poets, Stephanie brought her sharp wit to a a playful and utterly political navigation of the line (take the line in any direction you like) in which she also adopted the persona of The National Party Poet (not CK Stead! but a national party stalwart). She had the audience in stitches. Alongside the political nips that hit home, she celebrated Going West — literary festivals, Auckland literary festivals in particular. Genius.
I missed the rest and (supper and talking to a packed house of readers and writers) to drive home through the long wet scary dark of Scenic Drive from one side of the west to the other. Thoughts bounding with the slish shlosh of the wipers.The squeak of the road on the hairpin corners.
A great night. Tonight the Poetry Slam.
Photo Credit: Ben Speare
Victoria University Press has just published Joan Fleming’s second poetry collection: Failed Love Poems, a book in which I found so much to admire. Joan graduated with an MA in Creative Writing at IIML, where she was awarded the Biggs Prize in 2007. She is currently working on a Doctorate in ethnopoetics at Monash University in Melbourne. Her debut poetry collection, The Same as Yes was published by Victoria University Press in 2011. Along with Anna Jaquiery, Joan recently edited Verge 2015, a literary journal from Monash University. It is a terrific issue – I reviewed and highly recommended it here.
To celebrate the arrival of her new collection, Joan agreed to be interviewed.
Did your childhood shape you as a poet? What did you like to read? Did you write as a child? What else did you like to do?
I read constantly as a kid and kept journals. Shel Silverstein, fantasy YA novels with animal characters, kid romances, and a collection of ‘morality’ storybooks with titles like Courage: the Helen Keller story are what I remember reading and re-reading. I had an imaginary friend named Becky, and I think I was a bit fey, always off with the pixies or tucked into a corner, praying under my umbrella. But I was a performer, too. I would do anything goofy, just to be looked at. I was an easy child, but a strange one. I wonder if you can see that in my poems now.
When you started writing poems, were there any poets in particular that you were drawn to (poems/poets as surrogate mentors)?
The poems that carved early grooves in my mind were often lived or shared, somehow. I would memorise poems and recite them to my own head as I walked through Wellington. Paul Muldoon’s “Wind and Tree” is now inextricably Kelburn; Hopkins’ “The Windhover” is Lambton Quay. I discovered Anne Carson and wanted to inscribe everything she’d written on the inside of my body. I carried her “Town” poems with me, like “Town of Uneven Love”: “If he had loved me he would have seen me. / At an upstairs window brow beating against the glass.” See how you can walk yourself deeper and deeper into that poem?! I have an intense memory of drunkenly reading sections of Howl aloud to a living room of people, not all of them friends, and then going out into the alleyway behind the house to cry. Music had a similar effect. The poetry of Radiohead and Bonnie Prince Billy can still bring me to my knees. For me, it was about rhythm, emotion, suggestion. And poetry having palpable effect, an effect you couldn’t escape, even if you wanted to.
I love the way your poems refresh the page. There is an elasticity of grammar, a tilt of perspective, dazzling connections and disconnections, an originality that furnishes a distinctive voice. What are some key things for you when you write a poem?
My only rule is to write from the gut, not from the head. I know when I’m writing from the head. What happens is this flat, crass, nasal voice squats in my frontal lobe and won’t shut up, saying, “this is what a poem should do.” When I’m writing from the gut, there are no directives. Only sensation, surprise, connection, music, and feeling. It takes a lot of time and a lot of reading to get the gut working, but it’s the only way.
I adore the inventive syntax at work in your poems; a syntax that replays ambiguity and honeyed fluency all in one breath. Are there any other poets that have fed your syntactical inventiveness?
Anne Carson and Gertrude Stein are heroes of odd syntax for me. Jerome Rothenberg’s pseudo-translations of ritual poetries have also been influencing my practices of fragment and invention.
Deletion and erasure is a potent device (so apt for revelations and concealments when it comes to matters of the heart). Whereas Mary Ruefle whites out part of a poem in order to create something new, you have used bold black as an erasure tool. It steps away from a thing of aesthetic beauty as we witness on Mary’s page to something far harder hitting. Like a gut kick. Can you talk a little bit about notions of erasure in this collection?
Do they hit hard? That’s good. A couple of the blacked-out poems are angry ones. Erasure turned out to be a way of protecting certain subjects and lending torque to poems that gave too much away. The act of erasure also feels thematic – we perform conscious or unconscious erasures on our memories of love. We select moments and lenses; we tell ourselves a story, that casts the beloved in golden or bitter light. Blackout was a way of enacting that selectivity of the mind – the mind’s failure to tell itself the whole truth about love.
‘Things’ are palpable. They send you on a goose-bump trail such as with paper or sugar or biscuits. At the start of ‘First loss’: ‘When we met, all the songs were about loss,/ all the television shows contained it,/ it was in everything, like sugar.’ And then a little later: ‘your eyes gone hurt and biscuity with broken/ light and hunger.’ What do you want things to do in your poems?
Sometimes I want things to be persons. To have personhood, agency, worldview. Or be receptacles for emotional energies that can’t possibly be named.
At the heart of the book – love. Like a word repeated to the point it is drained of meaning and vitality, love can be elusive. Reading the poems love felt like a human glue. To know love is to have lost love, could that be true? To lose love, is to know love. To have lost love is to invent love, could that be so? What discoveries did you make as you wrote? Or is this only to be discovered as you live?
There is one monstrously important relationship whose aftermath I put to rest in these poems. There are still poems in the book I can’t re-read without getting choked up. I know confessional poetry is unfashionable, but candid, passionate, stirring writing is what I am always looking for. Those are the poems I value. That particular relationship was a ‘failure’ according to the standard narrative. We were together for years, but we didn’t marry, we didn’t have children, it didn’t end when one of us died. But it’s impossible to call it a failed relationship. It was a success. It didn’t last, but in the end (the last sequence in the book is named as much, “The End,”), it made us both larger and more capable of giving and receiving love.
I loved the proseness of the poetry/ the poetry of the prose. Would you write a novella or a novel?
I tried to write a novel a couple of years ago, but it was a dreadful, a plot-less, cringingly autobiographical mess. I’ve entertained the idea of writing a pulp novel about non-monogamy, Confessions of a Call Girl–style (surely it would be a bestseller!?), or a historical novel about my grandparents’ time as missionaries in Central Australia. Though I worry about becoming one of those writers who dilutes her craft by spreading it too thinly. Fiction is an art form I have huge admiration for, but I’m a total novice at it until further notice!
You recently spent time in the Outback. How did that vastness and colour infiltrate your writing?
Yes! Absolutely it has. That time helped strengthen my intuition. Weeks on end in the desert will do strange things to your body-perceptions. The land starts to talk to you, and you can’t help but listen, because it is working on your moods and your dreams.
I’m writing about that time in the Outback now. About my relationships with Yapa (Aboriginal) friends and worldview. I suppose the full effect of that desert-infiltration will show itself in time.
What New Zealand poets are you drawn to now?
Some of the New Zealand poets I’m most excited about haven’t even published full collections yet: Hera Lindsay Bird, Loveday Why, Nina Powles, Lee Posna, Bill Nelson, Emma Barnes, and Sugar Magnolia Wilson. I also want to read everything written by Ashleigh Young, Sarah Jane Barnett, Rachel O’Neill, and Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle. It’s the next generation I’m most drawn to, though poets Jenny Bornholdt and Dinah Hawken still loom large.
Joan Fleming’s webpage
Victoria University Press page
Paula Green & Harry Ricketts at the Going West Books & Writers Festival 2009.
Photo: Gil Hanly, Going West Trust Archives.
(fascinating photo! my little notebook, finger pointing, yep he’s the poet up tonight!)
I love this family festival. I love the sliding doors opening in the breaks and everyone tucking into food and conversation like one big poetry family. I love the eclectic programme and the way you can sit back in the same chair and get taken on a thousand voyages. Three cheers to the hard-working Going West team. I am honoured to be part of the festival, on your 20th celebration.
This year you hear:
7.20 In Remembrance: Glenn Colquhoun
7.30 Curnow Reader: Harry Ricketts
8.20 Myths and Legends of the Ancient Pakeha: Glenn Colquhoun
8.30pm Poetry Slam (Harry, Glenn and I are judges)
9.30 am The Poetry of Place: Kerry Hines and Leilani Tamu in conversation with me